By Susan Marquez
When Claire Easley retired from teaching school, she was free to keep her grandson, which she really enjoyed. But when he started school, Claire’s sister, Kay Allison (also a retired teacher), said Claire needed something to do. Claire agreed but wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her spare time. Then Kay visited a local boutique whose owner told her she was looking for spice mixes and such to put in her shop. “I told her my sister could do anything,” says Kay. Claire’s biggest concern was that she didn’t know anything about packaging or keeping up with orders, and that’s where Kay stepped in. “I know all about computers,” laughs Kay.
And that’s how Southern Sisters Gourmet started 13 years ago. “When we started, we thought if we could net $50 a month, we’d be doing great,” laughs Kay. “Now we work seven days a week just to keep up!”
Southern Sisters Gourmet is a company that sells packaged mixes to make entertaining and mealtime easier. “We began making sweet and savory dips but realized that there were a lot of others who did that. We needed to do something different.” Claire developed the Southern Chicken Salad mix that, to this day, is the company’s number one bestseller. Simply add the seasoning packet to one cup each of mayonnaise and sour cream, add a 13-ounce can of drained pineapple and one can of chicken breast, then refrigerate overnight for one quart of goodness. “I prefer mine with pickle relish instead of pineapple,” says Kay. “You can also add chopped celery or diced apples. That’s the beauty of all our mixes—you can add what you want to make it your own.”
Claire and Kay are four years apart and live about an hour apart – Claire lives outside of Memphis, and Kay in Pontotoc. They grew up in the tiny town of Holka, where their parents were both schoolteachers. “Both of our parents had second jobs,” says Kay, “Claire did most of the cooking for the family from the time she was nine.”
Claire became the company’s product development specialist, creating the recipes in her home kitchen. “Her kitchen is FDA approved,” says Kay. They have a small warehouse where the products are packaged and shipped. They started selling their products in vendor malls until a lady Kay knew in Minnesota told her they were killing themselves. “She told me we needed to be selling our products wholesale. Claire didn’t even know what that was, so she told me to figure it out, which I did. But honestly, I know that God just guides us.”
The ladies took their products on the road, to the Biloxi Gift Show, and to the Mississippi Market in Jackson. Then they started going to the Atlanta Market, the premier gift, décor and lifestyle market with the nation’s largest gift product mix, as well as to the Gourmet Show in Dallas. “We were going to those big shows four to five times a year, each time for a couple of weeks. Claire and I don’t like being away from our families that long, and we really like to know the people we do business with, so we’ve cut back some.” The products are sold in over 400 retail outlets in the South, Southeast and Midwest. All products can also be ordered from the company’s website.
The beauty of Southern Sisters Gourmet is that the products allow any home cook to look like a gourmet chef. “All you have to do is follow the instructions,” laughs Kay. “I’m not a cook or a baker, but Claire will send a new product to me with instructions she’s written. If I can do it without any questions, we know it’s ready to go. If I have questions, Claire will re-do it.” Kay says the family serves as the product taste testers. “I think I’m the best taste tester of all.”
The sisters have settled into their roles. Claire develops the products and recipes, and until recently, oversaw the warehouse. “We now have a full-time warehouse manager,” says Kay, who manages the marketing, label design and web presence. “I took a food photography class so I could take pictures of all our products and food shots.” Kay helps in the warehouse a couple of times a month.
The product line has grown to include main dishes and sides, soups, savory dips, cheese balls and spreads, sweet dips, frostings and other sweets and confections, soups, relishes, jellies and jams, fruit butters, sauces and more. All the products are made in Kay’s kitchen except the jellies, which are made by a co-packer using Claire’s recipes.
“We never could have dreamed that our little business would take off like this,” muses Kay. “We have thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, and we have such a fun time together. We have met the nicest people, and we have so many loyal customers. I’m just so grateful.”